Foreign language: one of the many potential requirements waiting for you in college. What you may not realize, though, is the amazing potential that learning another language can give you. Learning another language can:
- Improve your hireability (making you better able to rock interviews)
- Change how you view the world
- Strengthen your mind
But learning a language can prove to be difficult, as many of us know from our high school language classes. Being one of the few to come out of mine to reach the level of fluency I have, I think the problem lies in a couple of places. The first is motivation, which is to say, a lot of people taking classes don’t get much of a choice as to what language they take, so they don’t care to learn. The second, I believe, is the way schools tend to teach these languages. In my opinion, there are six main parts to learning a language. These are: memorization (vocabulary/grammar/conjugation/phonetics), listening, speaking, pronunciation, reading, and writing. In my experience, schools tend to focus on the memorization, reading, and writing, while largely leaving out the importance of the rest. The problem with this is that all six of these areas are entirely different skill sets, and each have to be learned to achieve fluency; being able to write in a language does not mean you can speak it. Conversation may be harder to grade then something you can put on paper, but if you don’t come to appreciate and use the language as a form of communication instead of a random set of test questions, odds are you won’t care enough to remember it. So that then, leads to this: what steps do I think would really help someone to learn a new language, student or not? To answer that, I’m going to go through some of the methods that I have used, and what I’ve learned through my trip to becoming bilingual.
Let’s start out with the part you’re most familiar with; the part that schools like to cram down your throats the very most! Vocabulary, grammar, verb conjugation, and phonetic rules are all very important to the language learning process, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t think they’re going to help much if you never master the other aspects of a language. Learning these things is largely going to be attributed to memorization, but there is one fundamental process I follow that helps make that memorization a little more fulfilling.
If I use a word or phrase frequently in English, I try and remember if I can say it in my second language, Spanish. If I can’t, I learn it immediately using Google translate (don’t trust this with full phrases…bit by bit is best). Computers tend to mess up translations though, and since a picture is worth 1,000 words, I use Google image search to verify that a word is exactly what I think it is. For phrases, I also search for it on, you guessed it, Google, looking for instances in which a native speaker uses the phrase or a close variation. This approach cancels out almost all of the mistakes I would be making using a translator alone, and it also makes it so that my learning is tailored to my own speech habits.
For conjugation, a good site I’ve found is Verbix, which has conjugation engines for many different languages. It’s probably also a good idea to find a list of the 100 most common verbs in your target language, and make a point to study them until you know them by heart. In fact, maybe you can find or create your own deck of flashcards on Studyblue!
Other than that, learning these concepts is pretty straight-forward, so it shouldn’t be your main focus once you get comfortable with the basics. You should instead be focusing a lot more on:
Listening. This seems like something you would just be able to do after understanding the vocabulary, right? Wrong. It wouldn’t have its own category in this article if that were the case. The truth is, listening is a very difficult skill to master, one that is currently my weakest skill in Spanish. To listen, your mind must be so familiar with a language that you can hear where one word ends and another begins, instead of a long slur of foreign gibberish. Not only that, but you then need to be able to process those words fast enough to determine a meaning in real-time, because waiting five minutes to translate them into English in your head is going to make you really obnoxious to talk to. So, how can you improve that? By listening, of course! Just immerse yourself in the language, and you’ll pick up on it much quicker. Watch a movie, listen to music, find a podcast, find a person who can speak the language; any or all of these can be the difference between responding with, “I’d like some water, please,” or looking like a drink is the hardest decision of your life.
Like listening, speaking requires you to be able to process information very quickly, and very efficiently. The language needs to become something you can speak fluidly without having to stop and translate in your head. Ideally, you need to become so comfortable with it that you can think in your target language. Speak it as much as you can, whether it’s through conversation, online chat rooms, or just talking to yourself. That last suggestion may seem weird at first, but it’s incredibly helpful; so helpful, in fact, that you’ll also be practicing the next section already.
Pronunciation is separate from speaking in that speaking is the mental aspect of outputting thought into language, while pronunciation is the physical aspect. The muscles in your mouth and throat actually need to be taught how to recreate the sounds the same way a native speaker would. A good example of the differences is the Roman character, ‘r’. In Spanish, the ‘r’ is created in the front of the mouth, in English, the middle, and in French, the back. Simply applying whatever sounds your first language uses to a new one is going to sound very different from how it should, so find out what sounds you’ll need to acquire, and practice them often.
While reading is less nerve-racking for those that are afraid of making a mistake (and let me stress that you will make mistakes), it is something I consider to be much more challenging. When reading, you’re far more likely to come across unfamiliar vocabulary than you would be during a regular conversation. Luckily, there is something there to help you through, and that something is context! Understanding something like half of the words in a paragraph is enough to help you figure out the general meaning, and can help you guess some of those new words’ meanings in the process. In fact, when I started reading through a translated copy of Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, I learned around four or five new words and phrases from the first chapter alone! In my experience, the best way to go about reading something new is to make a list of any words you don’t know, guessing their meaning from context. DON’T look up anything unless you absolutely need it to understand the passage; the point is to force yourself to learn based on context until you can guess more accurately and develop a level of fluidity. When you’ve finished a segment (or chapter, if it’s in a book), look up what those words meant and see if you were close to the actual definition; you could even add them to that Studyblue deck I mentioned earlier! You’ll be surprised at how well you can infer meanings after you let go of the anxiousness you’ll feel from not knowing a few words.
Writing doesn’t require the speed that speaking does, but it does require that you have a firm grasp on both the spelling and manuscript of the language. If both your native and target languages use Roman characters for the most part, you’re in luck. You will probably only have to learn a few variations of the letters you already know. However, for other languages, you may have to learn an entire new set of characters, or multiple sets. For example, Japanese has both Hiragana and Katakana (think of them as alphabets, though they are technically syllabaries), and also uses an incredibly large set of Kanji characters (literally thousands!) on top of that. If you need to learn a new manuscript, it is very important that you practice it regularly, until it becomes second nature. When I was looking into learning Japanese, the best tool I found was a game called “My Japanese Coach” that managed to teach me Hiragana within three weeks. If you can, finding some kind of software to practice writing with can be very beneficial, but if not, paper and pens are plentiful.
So, in short: practice every aspect of a language, and you will improve at every aspect of the language. Do it in any way you can, whether by hopping on a plane and taking French classes in New York, or simply grabbing your DS and playing one of the language coach games. You will excel past those who don’t, and can enjoy all of the benefits of being multilingual sooner! And with so many benefits, is there really a good reason not to?
Editor’s note: Martin isn’t blowing smoke about his language skills. Want proof? Check this Spanish-language song from his album “The Gloom EP”.